Lee Tae-won’s joy at chatting with his wife Koo Jeong-hwa soon turned to despair. The couple’s telephone conversation on 4 November last year was cut short when Chinese police seized Jeong-hwa and their four-year-old son Ji-hoon* in Shenyang, China.
Tae-won, 29, had good reason to be fearful. Any hope his wife and their son would soon join him in South Korea to start a new life had vanished.
My wife had a last call with me, saying she was being taken by police. There was almost nothing I could do to stop them being sent back to North Korea.Norht Korean Lee Tae-won
A fortnight after arriving in China, Jeong-hwa, 24, was facing the real prospect of being forcibly returned to North Korea. Because she had left her home country without a legal permit – a crime against the state in North Korea – she faced a life sentence in one of the country’s political prison camps, notorious for forced labour and torture.
Horrifically, four-year-old Ji-hoon was also at risk of being sent to the prison camp with his mother, due to “guilt-by-association”.
Last phone call
“My wife had a last call with me, saying she was being taken by police. That was the last contact I had with my family there,” Tae-won told Amnesty last week from his home in Cheonan, South Korea. “There was almost nothing I could do to stop them being sent back to North Korea.”
In 2015, Tae-won, had himself undertaken the risky journey to South Korea. He was distraught at having to leave his wife and child behind in the North. He is now settled in South Korea and works for a major electronics company.
“I felt very lonely without my family. I really missed my wife and son. I asked her to join me but she was too afraid to leave North Korea. I worked hard to save money to pay brokers to help bring my family here,” recalled Tae-won.
In mid-October 2017, Jeong-hwa set off with their son on the same perilous journey to be reunited with her husband. With the help of the broker, they were smuggled across the Chinese border to a city called Yanji.
With Jeong-hwa in China, the couple could talk freely over the phone for the first time in more than two years.
We missed each other so much that we talked through video calls for at least five hours a day. When I saw the faces of my family I wanted them to join me quickly.Lee Tae-won
“We missed each other so much that we talked through video calls for at least five hours a day. When I saw the faces of my family I wanted them to join me quickly,” said Tae-won.
For two weeks, the couple spoke every day while she was in Yanji and made plans for their future together in South Korea. They were anxious to see each other soon, but the police got hold of Jeong-hwa and her son once they travelled further inland to Shenyang, a major city nearby.
The Chinese authorities sent Jeong-hwa and her son back to North Korea on 17 November 2017. They were detained and interrogated in Sinuiju, a city on the Korean-Chinese border, until early December. Then they were moved to a detention centre in Hoeryeong, their home town.
Ji-hoon was sent home to his grandmother after 20 days because the detention facility said it could not take care of him. He was suffering from frostbite on his hands and feet. Jeong-hwa remained behind bars, still facing the risk of being sent to a political prison camp.
But Tae-won had not given up on freeing the woman he loved. He raised her desperate plight with media and embassies in Seoul. He also contacted Amnesty.
“We told the media and the embassy about what happened to my family. We learned that there are international organizations who can help us,” explained Tae-won.
Soon Amnesty supporters from across the world were urging the North Korean authorities to free Jeong-hwa. Despite the international pressure, months passed with no news.
Then on 1 March, there was a rare glimmer of hope as Jeong-hwa was released after three months in detention. It is not known why Jeong-hwa was released, but Tae-won believes the international pressure was an important factor.
“I feel so relieved that my wife was released. My friends were surprised,” Tae-won said. “The North Korean regime cares very much about its reputation. It’s a dictatorship but it doesn’t exist alone in the world. I believe the international efforts did help.”
North Korea is a dictatorship but it doesn’t exist alone in the world. I believe the international efforts did help.Lee Tae-won
Tae-won still worries for the future. His wife and son no longer live in the apartment they once called home, but now stay in cramped conditions with her mother.
“Friends told me that my wife is suffering from malnutrition because she did not get enough food in detention. My son didn’t even recognize his mother’s face [when she returned]. They are struggling but I can’t help them at all.”
That fortnight last October when the couple could chat freely seems a distant memory now. Communication with his wife has become almost impossible. With severe restrictions on contacting the outside, North Korea remains one of the most isolated countries in the world. The vast majority of people have no legal access to the internet or international mobile phone services.
“I have lost contact with my wife. I worry so much about my family and friends. I know they will be punished by state security if they’re caught using mobile phones to talk with me. They’d be sent to a labour or political prison camp.”
Hopes for US talks
“If the talks are successful maybe we could visit the North and South freely. I could be reunited with my family. I haven’t abandoned my dreams to see my wife and son again.”Tae-won on his hopes for the talks between President Trump & Kim Jong-un
Tae-won struggles with feelings of anxiety and loneliness, yet he still hopes the talks between North Korea and the USA will result in a brighter future.
“I have high expectations of the summit meeting between North Korea and the US. I hope the leaders agree to abandon nuclear weapons. I hope it creates an opportunity to improve the lives of North Koreans.
“If the talks are successful maybe we could visit the North and South freely. I could be reunited with my family. I haven’t abandoned my dreams to see my wife and son again.”
*Ji-hoon is a pseudonym